The Big Ones
by Justin Sevakis,
This week I paid a visit to a new donut shop in town, called Donut Friend. I quickly discovered that the place is dangerous, featuring fillings ranging from Nutella to key lime pie filling to bacon. A few days later I was biting into a "Cronut", a flaky hybrid between a croissant and a donut that New York is going nuts for, and Los Angeles is trying to imitate. Obviously I thoroughly enjoyed myself. And then tonight I stopped at a Beard Papa, a Japanese chain known for its fresh cream puffs.
I don't normally eat like this, but having just finished a mud run and not being able to walk particularly well, I felt it was time to treat myself. But now I'm feeling bloated and a little ill. Clearly I need to learn some self control.
Clearly I am a 33 year old man and if I haven't learned by now I'm probably never going to.
Whatever happened to Heroman? I thought the show was wildly entertaining and would be perfect for a US release so why has no one picked it up? The show is over three years old at this point. I hope this doesn't come across as just a "Why didn't my favorite show get licensed!!?" question. I think Heroman is interesting because the show was clearly made to have crossover appeal in the US market and nobody has bothered with it.
Heroman was an interesting experiment that didn't quite pan out. "Created" by Stan Lee, Heroman was a thoroughly generic kid-with-superpowered-robot show that just happened to be produced by Bones and made as anime start-to-finish. Co-produced by WOWMax Media (a then-new media company run by a former WOWOW executive), anime staff were sent to the Los Angeles area to research what America really looked like. The end result was quite impressive, visually anyway.
WOWMax dubbed an episode at NYAV Post, and shopped it around to the TV networks. A couple of things went wrong. There are only a few cable channels in the US that would consider a show like that, and they're all pretty tough nuts to crack. While Stan Lee's name was a selling point, the fact that the entire show was already produced was a big, big minus. American TV networks generally like to have a say in how the show is made, and better yet, own a piece of it. They're not used to showing other countries' leftovers, so unless it's a show with a built-in audience (like, say, Naruto) there's just not a whole lot of incentive to license an already-produced show.
We'll probably never know the gory details about what went down between WOWMax and Disney XD, who was courting the show but ultimately never aired it. Disney XD was trying to expand its male youth audience at the time, and was looking for Heroman to be a possible way to serve that market, but who knows if they ultimately found the story too generic, the environment too Southern California, or the style too anime. All we know is that beyond the pilot episode, the dub was never completed.
Was Heroman ever going to be a big hit in the US? It's a charming little show, and a well animated one at that, but I have my doubts it ever would've blown the roof off of anything. The characters, the hook of the show, and the overall story were just so middle-of-the-road and unimaginative that the whole thing just seemed a little boring to me. Which is why, even after streaming on Crunchyroll the show never really established a big, frothing fanbase. Will it ever come out here? Your guess is as good as mine.
Why hasn't Lupin III achieved the sort of mainstream success outside of Japan as shows like Naruto and Dragonball Z? After all, it's big and influential over there, has four lengthy television series, several theatrical films, multiple OVAs, yearly television specials, and crossovers with Detective Conan; it really surprises me that such a huge franchise is virtually unknown here. Back in the day, the second Lupin III series aired on Adult Swim, yet it's no longer broadcasting. The Castle of Cagliostro is considered to be a very important piece of animation (and it's Hayao Miyazaki). Japan and Europe get deluxe Blu-ray releases, but Manga Entertainment claims that they no longer have the license. Nowadays, it seems that Discotek is practically responsible for "saving" the series from completely collapsing in North America. Funimation were also kind enough to distribute the recent Fujiko series as well, but can this really change anything here?
FULL DISCLOSURE: I have worked on several Lupin projects for both TMS Entertainment and Discotek, involving both online streaming and DVDs.
I can tell you exactly why Lupin III isn't a huge mainstream hit in America. It's the same reason Gundam isn't a huge household name in North America: it's old, and its look and style don't match what the youthful American anime market wants in its shows. The TV shows are long, episodic and mostly formulaic caper-of-the-week sort of adventures. Lupin himself is pretty ugly, as are most of his companions, save Fujiko. While given a facelift in Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, the look of the show just screams 1970s. Compare that to current popular anime series and you see that it's pretty much the exact opposite of what's popular.
The series is very influential both in Japan and in Europe, but it was first released in those places when it was a much newer franchise, and didn't seem quite so anachronistic. Streamline Pictures, AnimEigo, Manga Entertainment, Geneon and Funimation have all tried to release various bits of the show over the years, but never really succeeded in finding it an audience big enough to sustain a major release.
Which isn't to say Lupin has no audience here. Discotek keeps releasing more of the franchise, so it can't be doing THAT badly for them. The third series just premiered on Hulu a few months ago. But it's a niche market, mostly of old-school anime fans and perhaps even some people who aren't even into modern anime. But the teens who make up so much of the anime scene aren't looking for a hairy-handed thumb-headded guy to have a weekly caper, they're looking for escapist entertainment that offers attractive fantasy worlds with cute characters, and serialized stories they can lose themselves in.
As far as I know, the license for Castle of Cagliostro is available, and I'll bet with Miyazaki's name attached to it, it could be quite a lucrative re-release for somebody, provided the price of the license is right. I don't expect Lupin will ever be mainstream among American anime fans, but if they keep experimenting with updating the show, there's a chance that some of that new stuff could take hold.
When a Hollywood would-be-tentpole movie flops, the excess licensed merchandise often gets sold off at a discount through stores like Big Lots and Dollar Tree. (I'm thinking duds like The Lone Ranger here, great idea as it was to reboot that.) So anyways, does something similar happen with anime merch? How do stores in Japan keep unwanted collectibles and toys from piling up? Do they burn it off in discount stores of their own, do they sell it to us, or what?
First, it's not quite the same thing when a giant, moneyed franchise reboot crashes and burns, as is the case with major Hollywood initiatives. For a huge mainstream push like The Lone Ranger, a huge amount of merchandise needs to be produced to fill the isles and end-caps of thousands and thousands of stores across the continent, nay, the world, and needs to be there before the film or show comes out, so that when people get all excited on launch day people hypothetically storm the stores and buy everything. When that doesn't happen, there's a metric ton of unsold merchandise that nobody wants, so it's sold to a liquidator, and ends up at Big Lots.
That sort of setup doesn't really happen in Japan. Most of the times, it's only after a show comes out and seems popular that merchandise is even made. The merchandise doesn't have to fill many store shelves (and most anime isn't even trying to be mainstream), so far less of it is made—usually only a few thousand units. If those don't sell immediately, it's not as big a deal: they can sit there on store shelves for a while before they start becoming a burden. No major chain retailer has bought hundreds of thousands of toys in anticipation of a major hit.
Despite this far more cautious approach, there is still occasionally excess inventory. It's sad to say, but most of that ends up being thrown out or recycled. Liquidation isn't as big of a thing in Japan as it is in the US, so there's not as many places to put discount merchandise like that. Further, many companies would be horribly embarrassed to have their product, which they've poured so much blood and sweat into, being sold at a dollar store.
Lest I give you nightmares about giant landfills filled with unloved Nendoroid figures, I can assure you that excess inventories with anime goods are a very rare occurrence. For all but the most popular Shonen Jump properties, anime goods are simply not produced in big enough quantity to ever have that much excess.
And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.
Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.
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